Stairlifts, wheelchairs, and radium-powered toasters

The BBC has
reported plans by the government to
ensure that all new homes are built to accommodate the needs of an ageing
population. Under these plans, new homes
would need to include features such as stairs wide enough to fit a stairlift,
downstairs bathrooms, and room for wheelchairs to turn. The plans are, reportedly, part of a wider
initiative to make entire neighbourhoods more old-people-friendly, through—for
example—building better pavements and kerbs, improving street lighting,
thoughtfully positioning bus stops, and ensuring access to amenities such as
toilets.

The plans
have been welcomed by organisations such as Help the Aged and Age Concern, who
believe that such measures will enable old people to live independently for as
long as possible. A spokesman for Help
the Aged is quoted as saying, ‘We live in an ageing population and our housing
must meet the needs of older people, both now and in the future’.

With life
expectancy steadily increasing, and frequent talk of a ‘pensions timebomb’,
it is unsurprising that the government feels the need to introduce measures to
protect people from a bleak old age. Tackling
the problem by legislating old-age-friendly features into new homes, however,
seems surprisingly naïve, for several reasons.

Some of
these reasons are fairly obvious. First,
there are several ways in which society can ensure that people enjoy a
comfortable old age. Forcing them to
pay—via the design and building costs factored into the price of a house—for features that
they are likely to need only in the last few months of life is arguably a very poor
way of catering for people’s future needs. Consider that the money spent on these features could instead be used to
provide features that offer better value for money, such as providing
additional rooms or a larger garden, both of which can make the house more
usable and increase its resale value. Or, the money to be spent on these features could be deducted from the
purchase price of the house, thus bringing it closer within reach of
cash-strapped first-time buyers—or freeing up money to invest in a pension. Second, advances in healthcare mean that
people are remaining fit and active for longer. Today’s sixty-year-olds are, on average, far healthier, more active, and
more independent than sixty-year-olds a quarter of a century ago. This trend is likely to continue, and some
believe it may actually accelerate
. In addition, living longer does not entail
spending a longer period of time frail and dependent on carers towards the end
of life.  As a result, the period during
which people are likely to need such things as stairlifts and wheelchairs represents
a decreasing percentage of their total life expectancy, making measures like
those proposed an increasingly difficult-to-justify burden on people during
their youth. 

More
subtle, however, are the perils of designing measures—informed by today’s
technology and values—to ensure the convenience of those living in our houses
in several decades’ time. About a year
ago, I sent to an email list a request for references on how those in the past
have viewed the future. One of the
replies I received, from Dr Thomas Forster at Cambridge, read, ‘One of my colleagues has, pinned to the wall outside
his office, a piece of futurology written in 1948.  It features a rather nice art-deco
radium-powered toaster’. The lesson is
obvious: if we wish to invest today’s resources in ensuring the comfort and
convenience of people living several decades in the future, we had better
—if we don’t want our money to be wastedbe
sure that we have a realistic idea of what the technology and values
then will be like. Otherwise, we run the
risk that, by the time today’s young people are infirm enough not to be able to
climb the stairs, technology may have advanced so far that they look upon
stairlifts and wheelchairs with the same sort of affectionate disdain that we
reserve for radium-powered toasters.

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